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Open Source Recovery

White House Economic Recovery Plan Emphasizes Transparency, Previews Governing Approach

SOURCE: AP/Ron Edmonds

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs speaks to reporters in the White House press room on January 29, 2009 about the passing of President Obama's stimulus plan by the House yesterday. The plan requires regular, public reports and disclosure of detailed data on investments made and progress achieved.

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Congress is now debating the merits of President Obama’s economic recovery plan. But if the Senate follows Wednesday’s House vote, the question of will it work will soon turn into has it worked. The answer to this second question should be clear thanks to what President Obama calls “a level of transparency and accountability never before seen in Washington.”

The White House has stated upfront what it expects to achieve. Much attention has been given to the goals of creating or saving 3 million to 4 million jobs over the next two years and spending out 75 percent of the total recovery funds within 18 months. But the plan contains more detailed metrics as well. The administration commits to, among other things, doubling renewable energy production over three years, computerizing all health records within five years, and upgrading 10,000 schools.

These metrics provide the foundation on which to judge performance. The administration is accountable for meeting its numbers, and everyone will know if it does or not. That’s because the plan requires regular, public reports and disclosure of detailed data on investments made and progress achieved.

The chief overseer of recovery spending will be a new board chaired by President Obama’s chief performance officer and composed of six high-level representatives (inspectors general and deputy secretaries) of federal agencies with spending responsibilities. This board, called the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, will meet at least once a month to coordinate and examine spending to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

This sort of ongoing assessment is reminiscent of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s StateStat system, which subjects state agencies to data-driven performance reviews every other week. O’Malley discussed this system, which he first put in place as mayor of Baltimore, at an event at the Center for American Progress. His team’s relentless investigation and follow-up, described in this CAP paper, saved Baltimore $350 million in just several years. Similar vigilance over recovery funds will help ensure that U.S. taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Congressional oversight provides another critical check in this effort. The Accountability and Transparency Board will submit quarterly and annual reports on its findings to Congress. The White House Council of Economic Advisers will also submit quarterly reports estimating the effects of investments on employment and economic growth. And Congress’s Government Accountability Office will prepare its own independent assessments every two months, which can verify the credibility of the administration’s numbers.

The public will be able to view these reports and track recovery data through a new website at Recovery.gov. In particular, this website will provide detailed data on each contract awarded, “user-friendly visual presentations” of money spent and economic effects, and monthly updates on investments in each state and congressional district.

The public is not expected to be a passive recipient of this information. President Obama, consistent with his campaign and transition, appears committed to enlisting the public as a partner in governing. Visitors to the website will be able to provide feedback on the performance of government contracts—contributing thousands of extra eyes to spotlight problems. Inspectors general are supposed to review concerns raised and report findings to agency heads and through the website.

The economic recovery plan likely provides a preview of the Obama administration’s approach to governing. Setting quantitative goals, continuous high-level oversight, careful assessment of the facts, Internet disclosure of data, consideration of public input—these measures can be applied to meet the full range of policy challenges, from health care to education to the environment. The Center for American Progress, in fact, has published recommendations arguing for just that.

Accountability and transparency may sometimes bring embarrassment to government officials. Goals will not always be met. Mistakes and abuse will be exposed. But openness ultimately delivers government that is more effective, more efficient, and less corrupt. President Obama’s recovery plan shows he’s focused on the big picture.

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